Gervaise Review

Maria Schell gives an award-winning performance in the title role of Gervaise, an adaptation from Emile Zola, one of four films released on disc by StudioCanal to mark director René Clément’s centenary.

Gervaise Macquart (Maria Schell) is a laundress with a club foot, struggling to make ends meet when her lover Auguste (Armand Mestral) abandons her with their two young sons. She meets Henri Coupeau (François Périer), a roofer, and is able to buy her own laundry and set up in business. But then Coupeau has an accident falling from a roof and, unable to work, starts to drink heavily…

After Jeux interdits René Clément took a marked change of direction. He next made Monsieur Ripois (aka Knave of Hearts), an English-language comedy in which the French lothario of the title (played by Gérard Philipe) travels to London and seduces quite a few Englishwomen. Some of the film was shot on real London streets with hidden cameras. Clément then took an excursion into historical drama with Gervaise. Three widely different films, and apart from their mutual director they have in common the fact that they’re all based on novels. But Gervaise ups the stakes in that its source text is an acknowledged classic of French naturalism, Émile Zola’s L’assommoir. Published in 1877, L’assommoir was the seventh of what became a twenty-volume novel cycle, Les Rougon-Macquart, novels about various members of one French family between the years of 1852 and 1870. The original French title was Parisian slang for a shop selling cheap liquor.

Clément has been described as “the French Hitchcock” and while he certainly did make his fair share of Hitchcockian suspense thrillers, he roved more widely into different genres than the Master did. To reiterate, he worked in the commercial cinema, bringing his art and craft to recognisable genres often involving star actors, and any personal angles are “smuggled” behind the genre mask. Gervaise is a literary adaptation and costume drama but Clément seems concerned not to make something worthy but dull, and takes us through the story at some pace. Gervaise seems to me to be in dialogue with the classic Hollywood women’s picture. One of the major Hollywood actresses of the time would have eaten up the role of Gervaise, though the film would have had to be toned down if made in either the USA or the UK – more of this in a while. But it’s Austrian-born Maria Schell who has this role, and she gives a barnstorming performance which dominates the film. Gervaise won her the Best Actress award at the 1956 Venice Film Festival. She was also nominated for a BAFTA for Best Foreign Actress, though lost to Anna Magnani in The Rose Tattoo. However, the film won the BAFTA for Best Film from Any Source and François Périer won for Best Actor.

I’ve not read the novel, and no doubt there are subtleties lost from page to screen, as is the way with almost all adaptations. But it’s a well-made, handsomely-produced film with a strong lead performance and it certainly entertains.

Gervaise shows that France was in 1956 more liberal in what could be shown on screen than other countries. It had to be cut to gain a UK X certificate, restricting the audience to the over-sixteens, and that doesn’t surprise me. Presumably some of the subtitles had to be changed: a verbal reference to urolagnia is not something I’m used to hearing in a 50s film from any country. At the time, Hollywood was still governed by the Production Code and at least one shot had to be removed there. In the factory fight between Gervaise and Virginie (Suzy Dellair), there is a shot where a victorious Gervaise pulls down Virginie’s drawers and exposes her buttocks before beating her with a paddle. That was too much for the US censor, but in this DVD release Dellair’s bottom (or rather that of her body double) is present and correct.


Gervaise is one of four films released by StudioCanal to mark René Clément’s centenary. It is DVD-only, on a single-layered disc encoded for Region 2.

By 1956, widescreen had taken hold in Hollywood, and non-Scope films were being made in ratios of 1.66:1 and often wider, and the old Academy Ratio of 1.37:1 was obsolete. This process took longer in Europe, and Gervaise was filmed in black and white in the old ratio. The DVD transfer is a little soft, which may reflect the filming style (I’d not seen the film before) but certainly watchable and the grain does seem natural.

The soundtrack is the original French-language mono and is clear with dialogue, music and sound effects well-balanced, clearly a professional job of work. English subtitles are white in colour and fixed. They are somewhat Americanised: for example Gervaise twice describes herself as “a gimp” (meaning club-footed, nothing to do with sado-masochism).

There are no extras, not even a trailer.


Updated: Jan 23, 2013

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